I’m pretty sure I was awake for almost every hour of the first 6 weeks of our oldest daughter’s life. As a brand new parent entering the uncertain and sleep-deprived world of caring for a newborn, I still recall the distinct and visceral feeling of what we call the Neutral Zone. This change plunged us into a transition – the ending of one stage of life and the beginning of another. In between the Ending and the Beginning is the Neutral Zone: a place where one is not quite acclimated and thriving in the new normal and is definitely no longer in the role of the past. Honestly, the Neutral Zone can really stink. But it doesn’t have to.
Company re-organization, job change, life change, moving, births, deaths– these are some of the major changes that move us through something William Bridges calls the Transition Process. While it’s normal and universal, the speed and impact of the transition are unique to every person.
Over the past few months our company has rebranded and launched our new website. We’ve lived the transition process that we walk our clients through. And I’ve got to say, we believe in taking our own medicine.
Our Team has emerged from the Ending and Neutral Zone and into the Beginning of our new company identity clearer and better positioned to serve our clients. But there were some murky days of struggle and uncertainty through this journey. If you are facing significant transition, or if your work causes transition in the lives of others, you might be interested in the lessons I learned in my own journey through the Neutral Zone:
1. A laser-focus on why unleashes passion.
In the depths of the Neutral Zone, I began to doubt our decision. We had staff meetings where one of us would ask, “Why are we doing this rebrand again?” Data helped. A client survey gave us some meaningful insights. More important was our belief that we could improve how we serve current and future clients by leveraging our growing team and better explaining what we do and how we do it.
At the end of the day, data points, profit, or increased efficiency isn’t enough. The drama and pushback that comes with disruptive change is rooted in the lack of a compelling why.
For us, the antidote was a shared and compelling belief that fueled our team’s fire. Fighting to claim our why was one of the best things that came out of the neutral zone, for me. It’s no longer just Chip’s why; it’s Alyssa’s and my why, too. I have fingerprints all over this change. I own Kairos’ purpose in a new way because of this process.
2. It’s easy to underestimate the time and effort involved.
Living through the Neutral Zone can be exhausting.
We initiated the branding change so we could live in the future state. But slogging together through drafts of new content, planning meetings, thinking critically about every nuance of our website and brand, even the naming process took a long time. Getting our whole team aligned while we were each busy and moving through the neutral zone at our own pace was surprisingly hard.
Over and over I was tempted to shove us forward in the process. I tried a few times – pushing for tighter deadlines and attempting to cut off additional discussion. I was wrong. Trying to force us through the neutral zone as fast as possible is not what we needed during this disruptive change. We needed to cultivate a shared ownership. The pain of moving slowly is small compared to the pain of second-guessing, resentment toward the leader who shoved the processes forward, and costly re-work.
3. Technical and emotional support are both essential.
Like those early days with my newborn daughter, some parts of our Kairos transition were easier than others. Some days were energizing and full of possibility – working with our design company to develop logo concepts, settling on our name, the photo shoot for the website. Some were slow and painstaking – emails about which ladder image to use or editing website text would leave me asking, how much longer until we’re done?
For me, our transition was a hurry-up-and-wait process. While that’s common for many organizational changes, it can be grueling. I got bored, edgy, distracted, and impatient. I wanted to contribute to the technical work we were doing but didn’t always have a clear path or the right skills to do that. Sometimes, I felt like we were just floundering.
The main reason I got bogged down in the Neutral Zone was a lack of emotional and technical support. Not addressing them can lead to frustration and disengagement.
Frustration is a normal part of the neutral zone and it’s a signal that a conversation needs to take place. The key for me was to name my frustration and ask for what I needed. This is the essence of technical and emotional support. Practically, that looked like a consistent agenda item at our staff meetings on the rebrand with the check-in question: How are you feeling about the transition process? And a follow up: What do we need to do next?
These simple but powerful questions helped us have the right conversation, feel like we were in control of the change once again, and be able to ask each other or our design company for what we needed.
The Neutral Zone is an unavoidable and challenging part of navigating change. But I believe it doesn’t have to trap you or derail your transition.
I’m curious, what lessons have you learned from the Neutral Zone?